I love preparing my own food. I plan weekly meals and buy the ingredients that I need so that nothing goes bad and so that I don’t have to sit with the ‘what-are-we-eating-tonight’ problem. I’ve always looked forward to cooking that first meal whenever we have moved or been away on vacation. So, after a three-week trip through The Netherlands, Belgium and France, I was itching to put a pan on the stove when we arrived at our semi-permanent Istanbul home. But first I had to figure out how to shop for groceries in Turkey.
Our first little trial-and-error experience happened the first night when we strolled down to our corner store to pick up a box of cereal and some milk, just so we could get going at breakfast, since I started my internship at The Museum of Innocence the next day. We grabbed a packet of Special K and some chocolate cereal and (what we thought was) a container of milk. Keep in mind, that the bags didn’t say ‘Cereal’ on it, nor did the container read ‘Milk’, we were shopping by pictures. What our milk container did say was ‘Ayran’, which we now know, after spitting out a mouthful of it mixed with chocolate cereal, is a favourite Turkish drink when consuming meat – salty, yogurty, watery, pale-white liquid. We never quite warmed up to it.
The thing with shopping and cooking in non-Western countries is that your whole cooking repertoire needs to change to adapt to ingredients. Even if you buy all the ‘normal’ stuff it just doesn’t taste familiar. Well, that’s the one thing.
Then you have to figure out where to get the goods. We lived in Çukurcuma, a small area in Cihangir, and there was a Harris Teeter approximately 15 minutes’ walk from our flat. Harris Teeter is one of the few large companies with chain stores in Istanbul – most shops and restaurants are family-businesses. Over time I have learnt to buy things like fat-free milk and yogurts, cereals, and canned foods at the Harris Teeter. For vegetables and fruits I would take the 2-minute walk to the nearest produce vendor, and for toiletries, cheese, honey, Turkish chocolate (YUM), water, and cat food I would go next to him to the general market guys. I soon found out that you can buy cat food basically at every single general market store anywhere. This is because locals feed the stray cats, or because some tourists trick a friendly stray cat into their homes and pretend its their pet. Hypothetically, of course.
We bought tea at the same store where we got our Turkish Delight, where we became regulars way to fast. (One of my favourite memories is on our second to last day in Istanbul when we visited the shop for the last time, hanging around and being allowed to stuff our faces with all the dried fruit and turkish delight we could handle, while we waited for our friend Mahmoud to help the poor tourists feeling intimidated by his charisma and all the choices to be made.)
Rather than buying bulk like I would at home, I shopped often, since it was so close and the (local) fruit and veg are replenished daily. That’s the thing with Turkey – I found very few imported products in stores – Turkey would pretty much be able to self-sustain if it had to. The other thing is that general market stores, fruit and veg vendors and family-run restaurants are EVERYWHERE. I could almost guarantee that there will be a general market, a vegetable guy, and a restaurant within five minutes‘ walk of your hypothetical Istanbul apartment. So if you ran out of water or oranges at 10pm, you could leave (in the dark by yourself) and be back with whatever you needed within five minutes. Often I would stumble in the flat with 10 litres of water and Joel would be like, “oh, wow, you’re back!”
It wasn’t long until I realised that that guy yelling some indistinct Turkish word (I’ve even heard a Turkish guy say, when someone else told him what the guy was yelling, “ooohhhhh….THAT’S what he’s yelling!”) in a very distinctive vocal lilt (ask me later, I’ve got the impression down) is selling filled breakfast pastries, which he keeps warm in his little cart, which he pushes up and down all of Cihangir’s windy cobbled streets. Then there is also the grocery truck which makes its appearance every other day. It is basically just a small pick-up truck with some onions, potatoes and whatever else on the back, with a driver yelling some things over a loud-speaker, selling produce to whomever he wants to. There are a lot of very old ladies living in Çukurcuma that can’t always make it to a store and this where the grocery truck comes into play. However, sometimes the driver yells something like “No, I’m not selling to you again, you just cause trouble” up to an old lady who will be pointing her finger menacingly back at him.
Oh and did I mention the fruit and vegetable horse-and-carriage guy?? Ya.
The thing with these guys is that you’re gonna have to know some Turkish. Which is my biggest advice, because this is true even in stores like Harris Teeter: If you are going to want to buy food outside of Sultanahmet (tourist-central), LEARN TURKISH. Even if you don’t interact with people, ALL THE BRANDING IS TURKISH. This will make your life so much easier. I learnt a fair amount of Turkish (enough to somewhat confidently go to a shop) from sitting with my friend Dilan, whom I worked with, and annoying her by constantly saying “How do you saaaayyyy……?”. But in the beginning I would, instead of English, write the Turkish word for canned tomatoes on my shopping list. Or I would memorise the word for ‘mint’ (nane) or whatever when I go to my fruit and veg guy. Things will work out pretty well for you of you can say and understand ‘Do you have ____’ , ‘Yes I have_____’, ‘That’s gonna be ____Lira’, ‘Do you have change?’, or ‘I want four please’, etc.
For the most part. By the end of our stay there was a national black out (can you say ‘cyber attack’?….!) and I ran down to the market to buy candles. I picked up a bulk bag of tealight candles, pointed to it, and said (in Turkish): ‘Do you have a small bag?’ However, the word for bag that I used is more like ‘plastic bag’, and less like ‘package’, which is what I meant (because I didn’t want 100 tea lights). He looked confused and said, ‘Yes, I do!’ and pulled out a small plastic bag from behind the counter. I shook my head and said, ‘No no, do you have a small plastic bag?’, pointing to the candles. And repeat. I later changed my tactic and said ‘I don’t want many, I just want three’. He pulled out two more plastic bags. I was finally saved by a guy who walked in and told me what the word for candle is (mum [pronounced ‘moom’]), after which the shop keeper pulled out three single candles from behind the counter, whereupon everyone nodded and said “aaaahhhhh!! Evet evet evet!” (yes yes yes).
Shopping is not so straight forward if you can’t speak or read Turkish, which is why you should take your time to look at pictures when you shop and/or learn a bit of Turkish when you’re going to be staying for a while. In the end it’s pretty rewarding when after a couple of weeks the shop keepers stop pulling out the calculators to show you the price and instead just tells you what it is. in Turkish.
TIPS FOR GROCERY SHOPPING IN TURKEY
1. Support your local vendors
2. Go to the same places so that the shopkeepers get to know you
3. Learn Turkish. It’s easy.
4. Do as the locals and feed some cats. Outside in the streets.
5. Don’t pour Ayran into your chocolate cereal. It’s gross.